The Netherlands entered this World Cup with the lowest expectations the nation has had for a major tournament since the 1960s. Golden generations have come and gone in Dutch football, yet the nation has never lifted the World Cup trophy. For years, the Netherlands squad has been more about big personalities and individual abilities than team play. But Louis Van Gaal, soon to take over Manchester United, has changed this into a team where personalities and individual achievements are taking a backseat to collective accomplishments.
The most recent Dutch sides have had a core group of seven players of note – Robin Van Persie, Arjen Robben, Dirk Kuyt, Wesley Sneidjer, Nigel DeJong, Klaas-Jan Huntelaar and Rafael Van Der Vaart. This particular group of players has been through a great deal. In 2008, the Oranje took the European Championship by storm ripping through formidable opposition until shockingly losing to Russia in the quarterfinals. In 2010, after years of being easy on the eye and known for a progressive playing style, the Netherlands adopted a more brutal approach to the game, and lost much of the residual goodwill of neutrals, losing 1-0 in the final to Spain in a negative match. In 2012, the side was touted as one of the favorites in the European Championships but instead went home without a point. Entering the 2014 World Cup, this group was aging. And the Dutch lacked the type of highly-touted young players that have been a part of every major Dutch tournament squad since the mid 1980s.
Each of those core players is now 29 or older. Van der Vaart was injured and did not make the World Cup side. The general consensus then was that the six remaining veteran players would not be enough to get the Netherlands even out of the group stage, let alone go deep in the competition. It appeared that yet another generation of Dutch players with high expectations was going to depart the scene without winning anything at the international level.
But what has happened is remarkable. Louis Van Gaal’s side, using a number of younger players who are based domestically, has excelled. The personality clashes of past Dutch sides have disappeared. The group of younger players brought in by Van Gaal has fit specific roles around the aging superstar core of the side.
We’ve seen less shows of demonstrative displeasure with this Netherlands side. There has been less acting out from notoriously volatile players like Robben and Van Persie. Prior to being injured, DeJong was playing with more grace and less recklessness then we’ve seen in years. Kuyt has embraced playing wherever he could to be useful for the side, even lining up as a right-back against Costa Rica on Saturday, just two matches after playing a lone striker against Chile.
Today, when the chips were down, DeJong — whose injury has rendered him out of the tournament — was seen demonstrably cheering his teammates on. In the past, we hardly saw these types of emotions displayed publicly by Dutch stars on the bench. Van Gaal’s controversial decision to bring the excellent goalkeeper Jasper Cillessen off the pitch before the penalty shootout for Tim Krul was genius. What was even more remarkable was how it was embraced by the entire team including Cillessen.
Louis Van Gaal has made the Netherlands into a team. The side drama of the Dutch sides we saw in the 1970s and then especially in the 1990s and 2000s when player and coaching clashes ran roughshod over highly-touted tournament squads seems a thing of the past.
The greatest underachieving nation in terms of trophies in the history of international soccer is perhaps one of sides punching furthest above its weight in this tournament.